Robert Taubman

Robert Taubman is head of the Department of Humanities at Bristol Polytechnic.

Double Life

Robert Taubman, 19 May 1983

Like a Victorian novel, The Philosopher’s Pupil ends with a valedictory coda. Good-bye Emma, good-bye Pearl. They have ‘become (and I predict will steadily remain) fast friends, bringing a lot of affection, happiness and wisdom into each other’s lives’. It’s an amiable convention, pretending that these are real people, and that ‘affection, happiness and wisdom’ are real values and not just a touching illusion. But it’s only a pretence, considering what the preceding 500 pages have done to knock any meaning out of such words. Iris Murdoch juggles with reality and illusion, playing with the possibilities of ‘as if’; and there’s some mockery of her puppet-characters in the assumption of this coda that they could ever merge into real life.

Holocaust Art

Robert Taubman, 10 January 1983

In the preface to Days of Contempt, André Malraux alerted his readers to the fact that ‘it is the concentration camps that are dealt with here.’ This was in 1935, and the first of Hitler’s concentration camps had been established only two years earlier. But this preface is misleading, for the novel is neither informative nor prophetic about the concentration camps – what it mainly reveals is the conditioning power of the historical imagination. Its hero hardly differs from the prototypes of the Romantic revolutionary, and his prison is not a camp but a stone vault. You wouldn’t think that more than a hundred years had passed since Fidelio. But as the names Dachau or Buchenwald began to appear more widely in the literature of the Thirties, it was clear that they referred to a new phenomenon – not to traditional prisons but to hutted camps spreading throughout Germany – and to a new concept: not just a way of dealing with political prisoners, but internal repression on a vast scale, embodying the very meaning of the totalitarian state.

Beckett’s Buttonhook

Robert Taubman, 21 October 1982

Beckett our contemporary – readers and audiences undoubtedly respond to him as a contemporary – is all the same very much a creature of the Twenties. He is the last great Modernist. His plays make use of Twenties techniques: hypnotic spotlights, loudspeakers, expressionistic props and highly-organised speech rhythms. Ill seen ill said is bafflingly obscure, not in any new and unfamiliar way, but in the now historic Modernist manner that uses metaphor and symbolism to half-suggest a meaning. It plays the old trick of the far-flung allusion – for instance, to the statue of Memnon at Thebes, to Michelangelo and to King Lear. It will give more work to the scholars who have already erected a monument to Beckett. He belongs with the generation of writers, like Joyce and Eliot, whose work requires such attention.

Cervantics

Robert Taubman, 7 October 1982

‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Perhaps rather carefully, the words at the head of Graham Greene’s new novel are ascribed to William Shakespeare rather than to Hamlet, but inevitably it’s Hamlet they bring to mind. Very Hamlet, this complete scepticism – but not, surely, very Graham Greene; and what has it to do with a novel on the theme of Don Quixote? Turgenev brought Hamlet and Don Quixote together, in an essay on the Russia of his time, in order to contrast the man who thinks like Hamlet and therefore cannot act, and the man impelled by his dreams to act like Don Quixote. But Greene doesn’t propose a contrast, and this is puzzling. Does he mean then to justify the Don in his delusions? Has Hamlet’s pyrrhonism become just a cue for freewheeling fantasy in the current fashion? Has Greene joined the Post-Modernists?

Playing

Robert Taubman, 5 August 1982

‘There was a story that began –’ begins Sabbatical, and the story is then interrupted for two nights and a day by a storm at sea, itself interrupted by a dialogue on Aristotle’s distinction between lexis and melos. Like most Post-Modernist fantasies, Sabbatical takes a lot of unpacking. But this is John Barth in holiday mood, and a virtuoso display of techniques brought together from different kinds of novel is here frankly offered for enjoyment. One of its methods is purely realistic: it is full of information, for instance, about sailing in the Chesapeake Bay. In the summer of 1980 Susan and Fenwick Turner are returning in their cruising sailboat from a nine-month voyage to the Caribbean. Sabbatical is as devotedly a novel about sailing as The Riddle of the Sands; and like that rather staid classic it uses a sailing trip to get its crew involved in a real-life mystery story. Where Erskine Childers was writing about the Kaiser’s invasion plans, Barth is writing about the CIA. An island not on the charts, a shot in the morning mist, deaths and disappearances occur, to a running commentary of texts and footnotes documenting CIA practices. And then there’s realism of a more sociological cast, in a trip ashore to Susan’s family at Fells Point, Baltimore. The period is almost exactly that of John Updike’s last Rabbit novel, and one recognises the same obsession with the placing of America at a moment in time – the stuff in the shops, the news items, the current stresses of family life, the curious national mood of confidence combined with irony, shame and foreboding.

Submission

Robert Taubman, 20 May 1982

The voices in A Chain of Voices are those of 30 characters, Boer farmers and their hired labourers and slaves, in the Cape in the early 19th century. The voices are ‘all different yet all the same’: they have a situation in common, and its main features are oppression and revolt. The novel is a series of interior monologues, which record the events of a local slave rising in the Bokkeveld in 1825, the individual histories of those concerned, and the folk memories that help to explain the situation:

Truths

Robert Taubman, 18 March 1982

Milan Kundera says of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting that ‘it is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina.’ He says this in the novel, in which he himself appears and invents Tamina. Modern satirical fantasy, of which this is an exceptionally lively and thoughtful example, gives everyone the same fictional status: the author, his characters, historical figures, angels. Part of the game is to try to tell them apart and sort out illusion from reality. The novel contains seven stories with other stories dovetailed into them, and the stories meet in a dialectical encounter with history and theory. Theories of laughter and of blackbird populations occur, and yet there are no digressions. Everything is beautifully and amazingly in place. He also says ‘it is a novel about laughter and forgetting, about forgetting and Prague, about Prague and the angels.’ Dovetailed into the angels are the opposite, anti-angels: Kundera has double-meanings as well as dialectics in his province. The first of the two stories called ‘The Angels’ is about laughter, an Ionesco play, Paul Eluard, astrology and fear; and the bad and stupid characters end, in this story, by ascending to heaven. It’s not the puzzle of what this means that catches the attention, but the feat of holding the story together at all. One admires the tour de force of linking seriousness and nonsense, the high-speed cutting between them, the play element that lets fantasy have its head and the intelligence that controls it. The autonomy of such a story tends to put it beyond interpretation.

Nobody is God

Robert Taubman, 4 February 1982

Rabbit novels come out at the turn of each decade, like a series of reports on the state of America. Rabbit is rich, the third and latest, takes place in Brewster, Pennsylvania, from June 1979 into 1980. Rabbit – as Harry Angstrom is still known to himself – runs a Toyota agency; his scene is now the country club, the golf course and the Bahamas on a wife-swapping holiday. The novel is effortlessly informing about time and place; about smart money and car dealing, what they say about Chappaquiddick, TV ads, the contents of a bathroom cabinet. This is a corner of America in a mood of complacence ample enough to admit self-criticism, provoked in particular by the oil crisis and the queues at petrol stations. Flags are at half-mast for the hostages in Iran. God, who used to be present to Harry in his childhood, has withdrawn, ‘giving Harry the respect due from one well-off gentleman to another’: but a consolation is that ‘not only is the Pope coming but the Dalai Lama they bounced out of Tibet twenty years ago is going round the USA talking to divinity schools and appearing on TV talk shows.’ Much scope for criticism of America is offered, but not inadvertently, for the criticism is all made or implied in the novel itself. And Updike’s trend-spotting instincts are not just alert to news-items but sustain whole scenes of social comedy, as in the marriage preparations of Nelson, Rabbit’s son and now his greatest trial. All this, even the dirty talk that grates plausibly on the ear, is so good, so alive, that one wishes Updike would stick with realism and forget about Rabbit and the meaning of life.

Travelling in circles

Robert Taubman, 3 December 1981

Paul Theroux is the author of The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express. He is better-known for these than for his nine novels. The novels are extraordinarily different from each other, and haven’t given a distinct image of Theroux as a novelist. He has set them in Kenya, Malawi, Singapore, London, Dorset, Cape Cod, and now in Honduras; and produced as many different kinds of novel. Graham Greene ranges as widely, but the Greene themes and style impose them selves; and Theroux has written on V.S. Naipaul’s themes. Apparently his own work doesn’t have the same sort of continuities.

Test Case

Robert Taubman, 3 September 1981

With ‘nothing else to do but the impossible’, when revolution breaks out in South Africa, Bam and Maureen Smales accept their house servant’s offer of refuge in his tribal village 600 kilometres from Johannesburg. They are all decent people – the two white liberals, their young children, the trusted servant, the peaceable villagers. All human instinct argues that this is not, after all, an impossible situation. Nadine Gordimer, in her unsparing new novel, suggests otherwise. Her recent Burger’s Daughter, though bleak in its conclusions, was more diffuse and humane; it dealt with an earlier stage in South African history. Set only a little later in time, and in a much smaller compass, the round mud hut roofed in thatch in a village of round huts, ‘its circles encircled by the landscape’, as in a photographer’s view of ‘the single community of man-and-nature-in-Africa’, July’s People reaches conclusions that are not just bleak but hopeless. Community of man and nature is only an irony in a book about the absolute failure of community between men.

Injury Time

Robert Taubman, 2 July 1981

Between the three corpses dug out of the snow in Gorky Park, Moscow and the sables let loose in the snow on Staten Island at the end – ‘black on white, black on white, and then gone’ – there are connections of cause and effect such as few crime novels have ever had to cope with. Gorky Park is a long novel because it tries to deal as fully with Moscow as Simenon’s novels with Paris or Chandler’s with Los Angeles. And perhaps also because its hero, chief homicide investigator Arkady Renko, is knocked about, by his own side and the other side, even more than characters in Simenon or Chandler, and the author allows for injury time. But the story moves fast, and bears lightly its weight of information about the MVD and KGB, the work of the Ethnological Institute in reconstructing the missing face of a corpse, the Soviet monopoly on sable furs, and such ordinary things as the price of beer. It has a Russian kind of poetry – ‘There was a solid, porcelain quality to the sky. It would squeak if you rubbed your thumb on it, Arkady thought’ – as well as an American kind: ‘Schmidt showed a smile as hard as a car grille.’

Malgudi Revisited

Robert Taubman, 21 May 1981

‘Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.’ Reading Graham Greene’s friendly words on the back of each of R.K. Narayan’s novels in the new Heinemann edition makes one increasingly uncertain what they mean. For nearly 50 years Narayan has been writing about a small patch of South India – in particular, about Malgudi, a city which bears a relation to the rather grander city of Mysore. And they are informative novels: you learn much about schoolboys and teachers in Malgudi, or about small town printing and publishing; and you can see from the autobiographical My Days how closely the fiction is based on real experience. In a later novel, The Painter of Signs, you can learn about later things, such as birth control propaganda. You can also see, running through the whole period, a split between traditional values and the natural acumen of his characters. Horoscopes and astrology have an elaborate role in the arrangement of marriages, but so does a human propensity to fake the evidence and ‘take no nonsense from the planets’; Margayya’s genius for making money is coupled, in The Financial Expert, with his readiness to subdue himself to the gods: ‘of course Goddess Lakshmi or another will have to be propitiated from time to time.’

Experiments with Truth

Robert Taubman, 7 May 1981

Bent to the ground in the gesture of prayer, one morning in Kashmir in 1915, Aadam Aziz accidentally bumps his nose – and gives up prayer for ever. This event ‘made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history’. Long afterwards, the same hole is discovered in Saleem Sinai, hero-narrator of Midnight’s Children: ‘What leaked into me from Aadam Aziz: a certain vulnerability to women, but also its cause, the hole at the centre of himself caused by his (which is also my) failure to believe or disbelieve in God.’ But meanwhile, in the pregnant first chapter, the metaphor has begun to ramify. A hole literally floats before Aadam Aziz, a young doctor constrained by the proprieties of Indian medicine, when he examines a patient piecemeal through a seven-inch circle cut in a sheet. And through the hole, organ by organ, he falls in love with her. A generation later, his daughter, uninterested in her new husband but famous for assiduity, ‘resolved to fall in love with him bit by bit … Each day she selected one fragment of Ahmed Sinai, and concentrated her entire being upon it until it became wholly familiar …’ The theme recurs, with the comedy eliminated, in the many organs maimed or removed in the course of the story – ears, arms, wombs, testicles – and in a familiar Indian sight: ‘cripples everywhere, mutilated by loving parents to ensure them of a lifelong income from begging’. Conjunctions of horror and comedy in this novel are as many and various as the metaphorical conjunctions precipitated with a domino-effect by the hole in the sheet and in Aadam Aziz.

Idiot Mambo

Robert Taubman, 16 April 1981

It’s hard to imagine what once seemed so liberating about The Naked Lunch, a famous cult novel of the Beat generation. A not unsympathetic critic, Leslie Fiedler, found much of it ‘dull protest literature, manifestoes against cops and in favour of junkies and homosexuals’ – which is not sympathetic, but not right either. I can’t call to mind anything less ‘in favour of’ drugs or homosexuals. Burroughs was being honest about his own opium addiction, which he saw as dependence and subjection, and thus as one of the representative horrors of civilisation. But neither was it an effective ‘protest’ novel. The mayhem he depicted, whether caused by cops or other ‘control systems’ in society or in the mind or body or in outer space, was such as to rob protest of any meaning. This is particularly true of a favourite image, the hanged man’s orgasm, which occurred so obsessively and to such numbing effect that it removed the horror from hanging just as surely as it removed anything erotic from the orgasm. The furious energy of destruction in the orgies of The Naked Lunch was about as liberating as a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Casualty Reports

Robert Taubman, 5 February 1981

Anna G. presents herself to Sigmund Freud in Vienna in 1919 suffering from severe breast and ovary pains, diagnosed as hysterical in origin. We are to suppose that her case not only helped Freud with Beyond the Pleasure Principle and his theory of the death instinct, but that he intended his paper on the case, along with the patient’s pornographic writings, to be published in honour of the Goethe centenary in 1932. There are improbable moments in D.M. Thomas’s novel, but on the whole it shows tact and respect towards Freud. And The White Hotel isn’t only a case-history. Its heroine, Lisa Erdman, is more than the ‘Anna G.’ of Freud’s paper: she is also a representative child of her time, who lives on, ‘cured of everything but life’, resumes her musical career and dies in the massacre at Babi Yar in 1941. It is a short and comprehensive novel, and ingenious in suggesting connections between its different narrative levels – psychoanalytical, historical and moral.

End of Story

Robert Taubman, 20 November 1980

‘In this unique fiction,’ say the publishers, ‘word and image meet with a richness scarcely seen since Blake.’ Certainly A Humument is no ordinary novel: but nor is it much like Blake’s engravings, ‘Word and image’ meet in these pages more as they do in a comic strip – in particular, the comic strip as it has entered Pop Art – or as in the single words of type in a Cubist painting. Tom Phillips is a painter who has exhibited earlier versions of these pages as a form of Gesamtkunstwerk, with the Coleridgean aim of ‘keeping the greatest number of things suspended in a unity’. In the past, he has also used other material such as picture-postcards, with the axiom ‘Everything in the world exists to end up as a postcard.’ But everything ends up as a book, in Mallarmé’s original words, and a book comes appropriately from a painter who first found his own voice, in 1965, through ‘chance procedures and the extensive use of texts’. This is what Burroughs and other novelists have been up to. And the sub-text of A Humument’s 367 pages is itself a novel: W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document, in an edition of 1892. Most of this sub-text has disappeared under acrylic gouache, collage or pen and ink, leaving a few islands or isthmuses that stand out to be read as words. If there’s a connection with games played by Max Beerbohm and Joe Orton in ‘treating’ a printed text, A Humument is never merely subversive or facetious, and pictorially is highly effective. There are pages that suggest soil profiles as used by ecologists, or Matisse cut-outs or Pop Art fashions: but brought together in a pocket book they reveal that Mr Phillips has a distinct and pleasant voice of his own.

Men at Sea

Robert Taubman, 6 November 1980

William Golding’s working material, the stuff he lights upon and makes his novels out of – and which he regularly proceeds to subvert or transform to his purpose, introducing levels of meaning unsuspected in the raw stuff – never ceases to retain its importance for these novels. Coral Island, we all know, provided the working material for Lord of the Flies; and if Mr Golding’s purpose was to subvert a favourite myth about English boyhood, he nevertheless chose a worthy myth – one we can still half assent to while half persuaded by the black, reductive alternative. Frank Kermode, while studying the mythopoeic patterns of The Spire, is surely right about the importance for that novel of a particular place, Salisbury, and a particular trade: ‘I don’t know exactly where he got the facts about the mason’s craft, however, and I should like to.’ It is Trollope – substantial, circumstantial Trollope – who counters the symbolism and the hurtful recollections of the transient 1930s in The Pyramid.

Us and Them

Robert Taubman, 4 September 1980

‘Sometimes this town remembers its past,’ says Agnes in The Secret Servant, pausing in the gun-play to quote Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge’. This thriller is about contemporary nuclear strategies and the elimination of agents and double agents. Agnes is an agent herself (from ‘Box 500’, which seems to mean M15), and the hero is no sooner posted to 10 Downing Street than a grenade comes through the front door. The material is that of any hard-core thriller, and very unsympathetic it is, cold-hearted in its violence and cynical about loyalty or affection. Most modern thrillers not only use this material but show a disturbing attachment to it. Gavin Lyall’s talent is for distancing his material. There are homely domestic details: ‘On the way, he stopped at a tiny village grocer’s and bought himself a rough picnic: cheese triangles, potted meat, biscuits and a couple of tins of beer.’ One remembers the bag of ginger biscuits Hannay bought from a baker’s van in The Thirty-Nine Steps. But mainly it’s a sense of the past that gives this story an extra dimension and makes the Wordsworth quotation sit comfortably in place. It’s true that the main reference back is to more violence, a long-range desert patrol in North Africa in 1943, which Lyall brings to life as vividly as Popski once did in Private Army. Lyall has a feeling for battles long ago and knows his World War Two, which he has used in this way before. He could be said to be repeating himself. Certainly he seems to do so in another episode, the visit to a dying colonel playing with toy soldiers in a chateau in the Midi – pretty close, this, to the scene of the man with the gun collection and a secret to sell in Montreux in Midnight Plus One. I very much liked this repetition, as a sign of a writer who has settled into his vein. The vein is more that of the classic adventure yarn than of the brutal modern thriller, though he brings these two things together. It’s not only that a packet of biscuits suggests John Buchan’s Hannay. The older tradition is acknowledged to the point of parody when the Prime Minister’s private secretary is given a family set of rooms in Albany where, ‘coming in off the chilly stone staircase, Maxim and Agnes had walked through a time gate, back seventy-five years to the days when the Empire was built of solid dark mahogany and pictures of dead animals.’

Walking backward

Robert Taubman, 21 August 1980

Not long after Ezra Pound, the precocious Djuna Barnes arrived in Paris already equipped with a style derived from the Jacobean dramatists and French post-symbolist poets, and so with as good a claim as any to be counted among the founders of Modernism. In 1936 T. S. Eliot warmly sponsored Nightwood, and one has heard since that her vision of Hell can be traced as an influence in Nathanael West and Malcolm Lowry, and her sort of Gothic fantasy in John Hawkes. In spite of this, when her books reappear it doesn’t seem to be so much in response to a public demand as because the time has come once again for a reappraisal. Has she a place of her own, in or outside the Modernist movement? I don’t think anyone really knows what to make of Djuna Barnes.

Queen to King Four

Robert Taubman, 19 June 1980

In Shikasta, some months ago, Doris Lessing engaged with space fiction at its most apocalyptic, covered aeons of time and used scores of characters, and left some doubt about her meaning. All is comparatively clear and simple in The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, which has the form of a fable – one where values are quite explicit, characters few and the action limited to a single episode in history (history at least as it has passed into the archives of Zone Three, whose chronicler tells the story). These Zones are parts of a land mass much like Africa (one imagines), and are inhabited by very unlike peoples – as unlike, say, as Zulus and Bushmen. The fable makes use of such polarities: mountain and desert, light and dark, male and female principles. One day, the fable goes, it occurs to the Providers, who control their destinies, to arrange for the King of militaristic Zone Four to marry the Queen of gentle, intuitive Zone Three, and then in due course to marry the wild, anarchic Queen of Zone Five. These moves carry the suggestion of a game of chess, and they don’t indeed have any very subtle or original meaning: what occurred to the Providers might presumably occur to any tinkerer with utopian theories of human nature. There’s also a marked resemblance – suggested, too, in the solemn tone of the Zone Three chronicler – to an idea Thomas Mann used in his fable The Transposed Heads.

Character References

Robert Taubman, 15 May 1980

‘Yvonne dear,’ his Aunt said, ‘won’t you do the introduction?’

Standing at ease

Robert Taubman, 1 May 1980

At the beginning of this volume Anthony Powell marries into the Pakenham family, which has some resemblance, he discloses, to the Tollands in his sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time. By the end, he has written the first of those novels, A Question of Upbringing. Intervening, the war years provide his main subject, and one sees how closely – the Welsh regiment in Northern Ireland, command of the Defence Platoon at Div HQ, transfer to Military Intelligence and liaison with Allied and Neutral military attachés at the War Office – Mr Powell’s own story has been anticipated by Jenkins in the novels. The war is thus ‘ground already traversed’, and Mr Powell himself suggests that the novels ‘throw more light on the experience than can be achieved in memoirs’. This will not dampen the curiosity of those who want the memoirs as footnotes to the real thing. In any case, it’s a useful conjunction to have, the life and the art version set side by side, both of them now recalled out of the past; and the voices of two narrators, so much alike but with different claims to authenticity.

Dead Cats and Fungi

Robert Taubman, 20 March 1980

Whatever the women in these Weldon and Shuttle novels achieve, it is not through effort or desperation so much as by passive submission. Women’s minds and bodies are the scene of all the action, but apparently no more than the scene; and though uninhibited freedom in this area is a sign of emancipation in modern women’s writing, I don’t know that the effect and the message in these two books will get a welcome in radical circles. Glastonbury Tor stands on the horizon in one of them, the giant man of Cerne Abbas in the other. The main characters learn to define themselves as women through manifestations of the instinctive, irrational world. They have little specific sense of identity or relationship; subdued by the primitive – ‘trussed up in ghostly inflorescence’, in one of Penelope Shuttle’s phrases – they evade even a representative role as children of their time. Dead cats and fungi are found in both novels; sometimes it seems that the characters could as well be zombies. The reader has to elicit a meaning, not from them, but from what happens to them.

Doris Lessing’s Space Fiction

Robert Taubman, 20 December 1979

Shikasta, in Doris Lessing’s novel, is our earth, and Shikasta is short for a very long title that speaks of personal, psychological and historical documents filed on this subject on the remote but friendly star Canopus. In earthly terms, some of the earlier documents look like reworkings of Biblical stories, or of Plato’s complicated myths. They’re interspersed with Canopean material mentioning spaceships and interventions by other stars, good and evil. ‘Space fiction’, as Doris Lessing calls it, thus has much in common with popular non-fiction offering similar interpretations of the planet’s history. And something in common, too, with the myth-making in Rousseau or William Morris that offers visions of hope or disaster for mankind. The myth-making here seems, by comparison, unpersuasive – being vague on the lost values of the past (‘voluntary submission to the great Whole’) and both vague and cranky on the continuing bond between earth and Canopus through the intermittent flow of SOWF (‘Substance-of-we-feeling’). The journals, letters and sociological case-studies that Canopean emissaries have gathered in recent centuries have more of Mrs Lessing’s real touch about them – her particularly fine touch in rendering people just being themselves or walking dully along. We, like Rachel Sherban who records it in her journal, have seen famine in the Sahel on television. But if some events are recognisable, the characters in space fiction are beyond my range. George Sherban emerges as perhaps the main one in this volume (which is the first of a series) and features towards the end as a charismatic youth leader, in a show trial of the white races by the others. Doubtless he’s not to be judged in human terms, since he’s one of the incarnations of Johor, an emissary of Canopus: yet the signals I receive about him are so confused that he’s no help, in ‘those dreadful last days’, in telling right from wrong.

He or She

Robert Taubman, 8 November 1979

One comes back so often to the question of what it means. The skill of the performance no less than the ambiguity of the material provokes such a response – a doubt about this novel. In other novels, Patrick White has offered the reader something more obvious to fix the attention, such as Voss’s intense and dominating will. In the absence of an obvious meaning nothing so fixes the attention in The Twyborn Affair. There is a good deal of absence in this book. Patrick White has been seen as sharing D.H. Lawrence’s interest in states of ‘pure existence’, but here it is questions of existence itself, and of the possibility of non-existence, that absorb him.

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